In the 40 years since building his first guitar, Jean Larrivée has rarely sat still. He has consistently adapted his company to changing conditions in the industry, even making heavy metal-style electrics when acoustic sales were slow in the 1980s. Larrivée has also built several factories from the ground up and has trained several of his children to have important roles in the company that bears his name. Larrivée tirelessly travels the world (where his skills in several languages come in handy) searching for wood, and he is also one of the largest wholesale dealers of cedar, supplying many other guitar manufacturers. In short, he is as close to a Renaissance man as anyone in the modern acoustic-guitar industry.
In the Beginning
Jean-Claude Larrivée’s interest in the guitar began in the mid-’60s. He was fascinated by Duane Eddy and began teaching himself to play, but it was an encounter with a more advanced guitarist on a Vancouver beach that would eventually change his life’s direction. “This guy—I don’t even remember his name—was playing so many notes at one time, I couldn’t believe it. He was playing on a classical guitar, but he was playing folk music, using fingerstyle,” he says.
Larrivée’s inquiries about the player’s technique led him to Robert Neveu, a teacher in Toronto. And although Larrivée had just moved to Vancouver, he decided to go back to Toronto in the pursuit of guitar lessons. The move would mean more than improved chops for the young Larrivée, though—while attending a classical concert in the Ontario capital Larrivée would meet his mentor, Edgar Monch, a German luthier and recent émigré to Canada.
Monch spoke better French than English, and because Larrivée was bilingual, the two bonded immediately. “He invited me to visit him at home the next day. I went and visited his little workshop, and I said to him, ‘I’d give anything to make a guitar like this.’ He said, ‘Come tomorrow,’ and I did; I never looked back.” Larrivée quit his job as an auto mechanic for General Motors and began the intensive period of study with Monch that would provide the skill and confidence to strike out on his own.
Creating the Larrivée Steel-String
For several years, Larrivée continued to build classical guitars in the German style that he’d been taught. But in the early ’70s, he became active in Toronto’s fast-growing folk music scene, befriending artists such as Bruce Cockburn and living at the Toronto Folklore Center. “The owner, Eric Nagler, convinced me to make acoustic (steel-string) guitars,’’ says Larrivée, who promptly set out to visit C. F. Martin & Co. in Pennsylvania and Matt Umanov Guitars in New York City to learn about how steel-strings differed from the classical guitars he was familiar with.
While touring the Martin factory, Larrivée was astounded by the many similarities to the fixtures, tooling, and methods used by Monch. “It just blew my mind that those two were exactly the same,” he says today. “Edgar never learned from Martin, but then I realized that Martin also had German roots, so I saw the connection.”
Returning home, Larrivée built a few guitars that were essentially Martin copies. “Probably the first five steel-strings I made had Martin bracing and Martin headstocks, but then, pretty much immediately, I started making the L-body.” By taking a classical guitar’s shape but slightly increasing its size, the Larrivée L-body would become his signature, and it remains unique in the steel-string world to this day.
Larrivée’s classical background was also evident in his use of wooden binding, mosaic rosettes, and clear pickguards, all of which set his instruments apart from other steel-strings.
While Larrivée guitars looked different on the outside (a fact that Jean Larrivée believes slowed acceptance in the U.S. market), an even more important distinction was hidden from view. With his classical guitar background, Larrivée preferred a symmetrical bracing arrangement to the slanted tone bars below the bridge found in both Martin and Gibson flattops.
“One of my apprentices at the time was David Wren (who today runs the Twelfth Fret guitar store in Toronto), and one day, we just decided to play around with some bracing,” Larrivée says. “What we came up with is the bracing we still use today,” The pattern that Larrivée and Wren developed uses an X- pattern similar to most other steel-strings, but the tone bars run parallel to the bridge, creating a symmetrical arrangement. In addition, Larrivée braces are tapered, rather than scalloped.
“The L-body with the symmetrical bracing was a really well-balanced guitar,” Larrivée says. “It wasn’t bass-heavy, it wasn’t trebly, it wasn’t middy—it was the perfect guitar. I’ve never attempted any other bracing after that.” Tonal considerations aside, Larrivée also claims that his bracing results in a guitar that is more resistant to movement over time, and therefore very rarely needs a neck reset or other major structural repairs.
Expanding the Vision
Asked about how long he worked by himself before hiring employees, Larrivée says, “About ten minutes. I’ve always had someone with me, for the sake of [avoiding] boredom, more than anything else.” However, adding employees and growing in size also enabled Larrivée to meet the increasing demand for his guitars while keeping them reasonably priced. “My goal is not to make $20,000 guitars,” he says. “My goal is to make guitars for musicians. Most musicians I know are broke, so I try to make the guitars as economically as I can, because I don’t want them to go to collectors; I want them to go to musicians.”
By 1976, a team of eight builders produced about 25 instruments per month—a respectable number in an era when most of today’s boutique manufacturers were in their infant stages. Then, in 1977, the lure of a milder climate and proximity to excellent Canadian Sitka spruce supplies drew Larrivée, his wife, Wendy, and the Larrivée shop to Victoria Island, British Columbia. Larrivée was able to improve tooling and climate control, and within a short time, 14 employees were making four guitars a day.
Despite production increases, Larrivée’s isolated Victoria Island location presented business challenges, and in 1982, Larrivée relocated back to the mainland, this time to Vancouver. But the ’80s, an era dominated by electronic pop and metal, proved tough for acoustic guitar manufacturers. Faced with reducing production, Larrivée instead introduced a line of solid-body electric guitars. With their pointy headstocks, aggressive styling, and Kahler whammy bars, these guitars and basses were a far cry from anything the company had produced before (or since), yet they allowed Larrivée to stave off downsizing.
Larrivée moved two more times within Vancouver, once in 1991, and then again in 1998, arriving at the 33,000-square-foot shop on Cordova Street that the company still occupies. Located near the city’s downtown area, Larrivée’s Vancouver factory is a high-tech environment that’s outfitted with CNC machines and laser cutters and exhibits many other telltale signs of modern guitar manufacturing, such as UV-cured finishes. At one point, the shop produced as many as 72 guitars per day, but today, its output hovers at about 26 instruments. “Every move went to a bigger location,” Larrivée says. “You never know how big you’re going to get, and you can never imagine you’re going to be one of the largest in America. You just think, ‘Man, I need another 1,000 feet, because I’m going to make five more guitars per day.’”
Goin’ to California
Though Larrivée sales were strong in Canada and Europe early on, cracking the important U.S. market proved to be more of a struggle. Ultimately, Larrivée decided that an American operation was vital, and after considering several options, decided on Oxnard, California, which is nestled between Los Angeles and Santa Barbara. Oxnard would not only become the place for about half of Larrivée’s production, it also became home for Jean, Wendy, their son Matthew (now operations manager), and other members of the Larrivée family. “Immigrating to the U.S. [in 2001] was probably the biggest breakthrough,” Larrivée says. “This is where all the biggest advancements have been made.”
Larrivée says that starting from scratch and working with new people allowed him to evaluate and, when necessary, refine every step of building a guitar—a benefit that the Canadian shop now also shares. “When I build tooling, I build two of each,” he says, referring to the fact that he continuously updates the Vancouver shop if he feels that a great advancement in the construction procedure has been made in California.
When Larrivée’s two-factory operations commenced, many guitars were started in one location and then completed in the other (with Larrivée himself often driving a truck between Oxnard and Vancouver!). Today, each factory builds guitars from beginning to end, with Vancouver producing all the satin-finished instruments, and Oxnard turning out the high-end gloss-finish models. However, Larrivée insists that every single Larrivée guitar still passes through his hands at some point during its construction. “I join all the tops, no matter what factory, and I pick all the wood,” he says. He also continues to be the only person responsible for certain building steps, such as hand-shaping the neck volute on the company’s Traditional Series, or spraying sunburst finishes.
Ensuring a secure and steady source of woods is of paramount importance for any guitar company, especially one of Larrivée’s size. Although virtually all factories buy their supplies from a variety of global vendors, Jean Larrivée’s willingness to hop on a plane and go directly to the source is unmatched.
Larrivée has helicoptered into Canadian rainforests to harvest fallen Sitka spruce trees, trekked through rosewood forests in southern India, climbed up Hawaiian slopes in search of koa, and often hand-selects woods directly at wholesalers in Europe and the United States. If necessary, he’ll even wield a chainsaw himself, literally starting the hands-on process of building a guitar at the source of the primary material.
Running his own sawmill in Vancouver, Larrivée not only processes all of his own spruce, he has also turned into an important wholesaler of spruce and especially cedar (which he doesn’t even use on his own guitars) to many other guitar manufacturers. “It’s another business, another thing that I do,” Larrivée says.
Although Larrivée guitars are available in a large variety of wood options, Jean is partial to his most classic combination: Sitka spruce and Indian rosewood. He cites “elasticity” as the primary reason for his preference on both accounts. “What I mean by that is that it’s way more stable when the humidity changes, it’s more forgiving than just about any other wood,” he says.
Larrivée occasionally also uses European or Adirondack spruce, but he’s also quick to point out that properly selected Sitka can have similar tonal qualities. He also wishes that players would develop a similar acceptance for wider grain in Sitka, similar to the way Adirondack is now viewed. “Three millimeters [between grain lines] makes by far the best guitar,” he says. “Tight grain sounds terrible.”
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Because he’s busier than ever, Jean has effectively put the next generation of Larrivées at the helm of many day-to-day operations. Besides globe-trotting and building guitars in two factories, he continues to be the go-to guy for any problem that may come up. For instance, at one of my visits to the Oxnard factory, I found Larrivée welding steel cages for several computers to prevent a repeat of the equipment loss suffered during a recent burglary. The California factory is a hive of activity, and bridges the gap in size between tiny “boutique” guitar shops and most larger manufacturer’s plants. And there’s an uncommon level of hands-on involvement and attention to detail, given the scale of the operation.
The years since moving to Oxnard have been filled with tremendous change for Larrivée, and while not every step of the way has been easy, Jean is filled with fondness for the past and enthusiasm for the future. “The immigration thing was like starting life all over again,” he says. “We had no credit—it didn’t transfer from Canada—and now that we’ve been here a few years, we’re being acknowledged by the banks, and the mayor of the town gave us an achievement award, so we’ve proven ourselves.” Larrivée is also pleased that his original design continues to be the company’s strongest seller. “The L-body is just flying off the shelves; it’s the most popular guitar we make.”
Regardless of Jean-Claude Larrivée’s compelling life story, the ultimate proof of his accomplishments is found in the instruments. Played by fingerstylists, strummers, flatpickers, and just about anyone in-between, the guitars (and occasionally ukuleles, basses, and mandolins) are widely accepted as meeting the standards of discerning musicians the world over. Clearly a lot has happened since Larrivée’s fateful encounter at the beach, yet his enthusiasm is as infectious as ever.